Reloaded Sooners have hopes for title run

Thursday, August 19th 2004, 6:44 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ For Jason White, it wasn't that tough of a decision to play one more year with the Oklahoma Sooners.

His first full season as starter for the Sooners took the team to the brink of the 2003 national championship and earned him the Heisman Trophy. But even with that success, coupled with injuries to his throwing hand and left foot, White didn't make a run for an NFL payday.

White, who stumbled badly at the end of the season in losses to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game and Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl, decided to remain a Sooner after coach Bob Stoops came to his home for a sit-down discussion about the future.

``I got to thinking about it, and there's not many people that get to play six years of college football,'' White said. ``It's not a job and you don't get fined for things. You might as well stick around.''

It didn't hurt that the Sooners have a slew of returning starters from a team that dominated opponents over the first 12 games spent the entire regular season at No. 1. Oklahoma needs only to replace two starters on offense and four on defense.

And even at those positions, the Sooners expect to still be strong.

Top-rated high-school recruit Adrian Peterson figures to take over for running back Renaldo Works and former starting linebacker Lance Mitchell will be back from a knee injury to replace Teddy Lehman, who won the Butkus and Bednarik awards last year.

On defense, new co-coordinator Bo Pelini must also account for the loss of all-Americans Derrick Strait at cornerback and tackle Tommie Harris.

Pelini comes to the Sooners from Big 12 rival Nebraska and will share the coordinating duties with Brent Venables. Stoops said Pelini has been sharing ideas with the Oklahoma staff for years.

``There will be different wrinkles that will fit us well, but the defense won't be noticeably different,'' Stoops said.

Stoops, who won the national championship in 2000, is counting on the wealth of experienced players to lead the Sooners to another national title run this season.

Dan Cody and Dusty Dvoracek lead four seniors on the defensive front. Four more seniors and three juniors make up the rest of the defensive unit. On offense, seven seniors are expected to start, including three on an offensive line that returns all five starters.

``We've got more senior leadership, more seniors in the starting lineup than at any time that we've been here,'' Stoops said.

All of them certainly remember how last season came to a crashing halt.

The Sooners, who previously seemed unbeatable, were thrashed by Kansas State 35-7 in the Big 12 championship. Then, a month later, LSU handed them another defeat in the national title game.

It was a stunning turn for a team that had annihilated its previous 12 opponents by a collective 580-158 score.

``We accomplished more than most teams last season ...,'' Cody said. ``Granted, we didn't finish the way we wanted to, but it gives us something to build on for this year.''

Expectations will be high for the Sooners. They're the preseason pick to win the Big 12 South and appear in their third straight conference championship and fourth in the past five years.

Beyond that, they figure to be a factor in the national championship race as well.

A crucial part to Oklahoma's championship hopes will be White's health. The 24-year-old, who already had two seasons cut short by serious knee injuries, was healthy enough to start all 14 games and threw for 3,846 yards and a school-record 40 touchdown passes last season.

With his improved mobility, White said he thinks he can do even better this season.

After all, he's got to make the return trip worth it.